With everyone trying to draw some national lesson from last week's special election in Florida ahead of the November midterms, add this to the mix: Liberals think Democrats shot themselves in the foot on Social Security, an issue that played a central role in the district.
Democrats used a familiar playbook, accusing Republican David Jolly of wanting to privatize the program. House Majority PAC, an outside group that supports Democratic candidates, dropped almost $750,000 on an ad warning that Jolly "lobbied for a special interest that wanted to privatize Social Security," and that he "still says privatization should be on the table."
Democrat Alex Sink herself called Social Security "an American promise" and said that unlike her opponent, she would "fight to protect the integrity" of the program. It's a message the party hoped would resonate in a district that has one of the nation's highest concentrations of voters over the age 65.
But Jolly had an easy comeback: He denied wanting to privatize Social Security, and fired back by noting that Sink voiced some support for the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan, which included cuts to Social Security.
The National Republican Congressional Committee hit Sink from the left on this, saying she "supports a plan that raises the retirement age for Social Security recipients, raises Social Security taxes, and cuts Medicare." Katie Prill, a spokesperson for the Republican group, added: "Sending Alex Sink to Washington guarantees that seniors right here in Pinellas County are in jeopardy of losing the Social Security and Medicare benefits that they have earned and deserve."
Liberal writers cried hypocrisy, but it didn't matter: Sink lost.
For the Left, it's evidence that Democrats need to take a firm line on the entitlement program -- or even support expanding it -- at a time when some in the party, and especially the White House, have offered concessions.
"She was a flawed messenger," says Neil Sroka of Democracy for America. "The fight has moved. But too many Democrats in Washington, while we're 10 years away from the Bush privatization effort, haven't yet gotten it into their talking points that voters also don't support cuts of any kind to Social Security."
The Left has been pushing an effort that is slowly gaining steam in Congress to expand Social Security benefits. On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., became the seventh senator to come out for expansion during a Senate hearing. The first to sign on was Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is facing a tough reelection battle this year. Merkley is also up for reelection, though his contest is slightly less heated.
"If [Sink] had run on expanding Social Security and Jolly had to respond by saying he was against it, I posit she would have won on that alone," says Alex Lawson of Social Security Works. "It's just obvious that what needs to happen is drawing a contrast with your opponent and Sink failed to do that because the messaging was very muddled.… It makes much more sense to go on offense."
Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist based in Tallahassee, isn't convinced. "That's a bit of a bank shot to me. These are people who are already on Social Security.… Expansion is not really top of mind for them," he said. Besides, he added, people are already skeptical of anything coming out of Washington, so more is not necessarily more.
Wilson, like Karl Rove, is skeptical of the notion that Obamacare alone cost Sink the election. In addition to the health law, he said, it was basic fundamentals of getting voters to the polls.
Still, he agreed that Washington Democrats could stand to refresh their playbook when it comes to Social Security. "There's a certain truth to that," he said. "Every single cycle, without fail" produces similar messages, and "there is a diminishing return on that kind of overly broad and incredibly shallow kind of attack."
With Sink likely to run again, she may get another shot.
This article appears in the March 18, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.